Why Do MMOs Hate Summoners?

Ultrons EverywhereMaybe it’s because I cut my teeth on RTSes before I even had an always-on Internet connection, but I’ve always liked the idea of summoner classes in RPGs. Hunter style pets are all well and good, but how much better would it be to have four or five or fifteen little minions following you around? In games like Marvel Heroes, I gravitate toward characters like Squirrel Girl, Iceman, and Ultron who involve a lot of pet management. In Torchlight II I played the Engineer because of his various bots, and one of the first mods I got into was a necromancer class. Yet in the MMO realm, I almost never play summoner types because they’re almost universally lame. For instance, in Guild Wars 2, the Necromancer has the potential to summon a horde of pets, but they don’t heal out of combat, and there’s a longish cooldown to resummon them, which is just annoying, and also they’re not really as good as just focusing on DoTs or direct damage. And, as far as I know, they’ve only gotten worse since I’ve been playing. The same can be said for the much smaller number of summonables that the guardian, elementalist, and engineer get. It’s the same story in just about every MMO I play; summoning playstyles either aren’t available or focusing on them severely reduces your damage output.

Supposedly, a lot of this is due to technical limitations; if everyone had an army of pets running around it would put too much load on the server and clients. First of all, I’ve used the “technical limitations” excuse myself, and nine times out of ten it’s simply programmerspeak for “I didn’t optimize my code well enough, and now it’s too hard to go back and fix it.” Second, aren’t they basically just NPCs that fight for players instead of against them? I know this is a gross oversimplification of something I don’t fully understand, but still, if the problem is purely one of technical limitations, shouldn’t summoners be getting more and more common as technology progresses, not less?

More plausible is that it’s more an issue of balance. In the tenuous and ever changing ecosystem that is MMO balance, I can imagine why tuning one-versus-one fights would be easier than tuning one-versus-five-little-things fights, and I can imagine it gets steadily more complicated the more players and enemies you throw into the mix; pets are part player, part DoT, and part AoE, and aren’t always predictable, especially in group settings. Still, it seems like, of all the various MMOs we have out there today–especially with so many that don’t seem to put much thought into balance–someone should have done it.

Thinking about this makes me all the more sad that I never got to play City of Heroes/Villains, as the Mastermind looks like it would be exactly what I’m looking for. Sadly I will never know, and, because NCsoft decided to rub salt in the wound by adding one of their least popular characters to their new MOBA, whatever small chance there was of an indie studio ever reviving it is pretty much dead. Hopefully one of these fan-made City of Heroes clones will pan out to be decent, but I’m not holding my breath.

WildStar: Where It All Went Wrong For Me

I count WildStar among my favorite MMOs. The combat is fun, the housing is great, the setting and lore are original and different, I run around in a Samus costume on a DeLorean hoverboard, what’s not to love? And yet I haven’t played regularly for months, and that really saddens me. I recently went back for the free level 50 character, and it got me thinking about just where it all went wrong.

The biggest reason why I quit playing was that my guild broke up. There was no drama, we just had trouble getting critical mass for raids, and the two main leaders really wanted to raid, so they left, and from there it just kind of fell apart. While I’m glad it didn’t go up in smoke and petty bickering, it was no less sad, since I really liked a lot of the people in the guild, who have now gone in a bunch of different directions. This isn’t the game’s fault, but it was probably the biggest reason why I left.

Closely related to that is the fact that there isn’t a whole lot to do after you reach endgame if you don’t have a guild. This problem isn’t unique to WildStar–some might say that it’s inherent to all MMOs to some degree–but even most of the dailies require some sort of group content (dungeons, adventures, shiphands, etc.). Arcterra requires only small groups of people, so at least you can usually do the easy dailies there with only a few random people you bump into during peak hours. Even housing is easier if you have a guild, since a lot of the nicer stuff costs prestige (which can be obtained from a variety of sources, but group content dispenses it the fastest), and raid gear is where the real money is in the game. I’m sure I’ll find a new guild sooner or later, but I’ve always hated guild shopping.

Massively OP’s Eliot recently visited WildStar for the site’s Choose My Adventure series. In his wrap-up post, he made the comment that, “in many ways, when I write about WildStar now, I’m still writing about the launch version of the game.” While he goes on to say some things I don’t agree with, this line really struck me as exactly the problem. There are a lot of little annoyances and bugs that have been in the game since I played it in beta and are still there almost three years later. Sometimes I can’t right-click on a quest on my tracker, and I have to click a bunch of other things to get away from it. Sometimes tooltips get stuck on. Certain mobs reset if you pull them a few feet away from where they spawn. That dumb DDR minigame in Thayd that you can only complete once and it will never let you back on. None of these are big issues–if I had to choose one or the other, I’d rather have more content than have these small annoyances fixed–but it still hurts the overall experience.

Overall, I think WildStar is a great game that started out with some missteps that could have been corrected, but sadly Carbine never managed to turn the Titanic. A lot of that had to do with lack of funding, some of it seems to have been the fault of a studio that was not designed to be agile and responsive to change. I don’t want the negative tone of this post to come across the wrong way. I think the negativity surrounding the game also plays a large part in my lack of attention to it. I love WildStar. If it wasn’t such an incredibly fun game, this post wouldn’t exist; the answer for where it all went wrong would be that the game was lame, and that’s not worth writing about. I really want to go back to WildStar and see it succeed and keep cranking out content for years to come. I don’t know if that will happen, but hopefully my boosted level 50 warrior will be the incentive I need to get back into the game.

Nintendo Switch First Impressions, or How I Accidentally Bought A Switch

switch-logoI fully intended to not buy a Switch at launch. The only launch title I was excited for was The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and that was coming to Wii U, so why bother? Let other people scramble around to find pre-orders. I was pretty excited about Breath of the Wild, so I pre-ordered it at Best Buy, and went to pick it up on my lunch break. My local Best Buy recently moved/split their Customer Service and Online Pickup desks, and I went to the Customer Service desk out of habit. As I was standing in line, I saw a stack of a few Switches and several of the people in front of me were buying them. Surely these were pre-orders; pre-orders filled up the first day and there was a midnight release. After the guy at the desk informed me that I was in the wrong place to pick up my pre-order, I asked, on a whim, if any of those were for sale. He informed me that all pre-orders were at the other desk, and these were indeed all unspoken for. So, while I was waiting in line for my Zelda Wii U disk, I started thinking. This is Nintendo we’re talking about; who knows how long it’ll be before I find another one. It’s not going to get any cheaper if I wait. We have plenty of money in savings. I could sell it on eBay for a profit… ok that’s probably not going to happen; if I have it I’m going to want to play it. So I called my wife and opened with “So… talk me out of this.” She in fact talked me into buying it, which is one of many reasons why I love her, and said basically all of the things that I was thinking.

So I’m now the proud owner of a Nintendo Switch. The grey version, of course, because the mismatched neon controllers make me cringe. I, of course, exchanged my Wii U copy of Breath of the Wild for the Switch version. The game is absolutely beautiful. I’m not sure how the Wii U version compares, but the Switch version has some of the best graphics I’ve ever seen from a Nintendo game (which, to be honest, isn’t saying a lot, but remember we’re talking about a tablet here). This feels like the Zelda-meets-Elder Scrolls (Zelder Scrolls?) game players have been begging for for ages. They finally nailed the graphical style (Windwaker was too cartoony, Twilight Princess was nice but felt like it was trying too hard to shoehorn cartoony characters into a photoreal world, and Skyward Sword tried to be somewhere in the middle, to some success, but to a lesser degree than Breath of the Wild), and the open world is a joy to explore. From the marketing and the reviews, it seems like there’s a ton of stuff to do in the game, which is good because it’s looking like it will probably be my only game on the system until the release of Splatoon 2 or Mario Odyssey, whichever comes out first.

The only problem I have with the console so far is the controller. The thumbsticks on the Joycon (the controller that snaps onto the sides) are short and feel a little cheap (the guy at Best Buy said they’ve had problems with them snapping already, but he was probably just trying to sell the protection plan), the buttons feel small, and I’ve had some connection issues (granted, my couch is pretty far away from my TV, but I never had any problems with the Wiimote or DS3). Also, controllers for this thing are freaking expensive. One half of the Joycon is $50, or $80 for both halves, and that doesn’t include the grip that links them together into a real controller. The pro controller is actually cheaper at $70, so hopefully that will be reasonably well supported (I don’t see why not, as it has the same buttons at the Joycon). I’m sure it’s all the new tech packed into these things–NFC touchpoint for Amiibo, accelerometer+gyro “HD” rumble, etc.–but I wish they would offer a stripped-down version that just took my inputs for a little less money. I’m sure some third party will make one, but, in my experience, third party controllers are universally terrible. In any case, though, it’s better than that awful, bulky Wii U tablet.

Controller issues aside, the console seems pretty solid. I like the touchscreen a lot better than Nintendo’s previous consoles (it’s capacitive like smartphones and tablets instead of resistive like the (3)DS and Wii U, which is less accurate for some things, but just feels a lot easier to use) and it feels light enough to hold for a while without my arms getting tired. The toaster TV dock attaches easily and the switchover to HDMI output is almost instant. In tablet mode, you can tell the graphics are dialed down a little, but it’s far from painful to look at. I like that there’s a screenshot button and the ability to share your screenshots on social media (sorry, Twitter followers, I’ll try to keep my Zelda screenshot spam to a minimum). The battery life isn’t great–I haven’t run it all the way down, but when I did it seemed to be on track for the low end of the 2.5-6.5 hours estimate that Nintendo gave. It’s frustrating that there’s only one game that I’m excited about, but I’m not too worried. Nintendo, for some reason, never seems to care about launch titles, so I’m sure we’ll have a good library of titles about a year from now (the DS, for example, was heralded as a commercial failure at launch, but once they got some actual games out, ended up being Nintendo’s highest selling console ever). Until then, I’ll be in Hyrule if you need me!

An Ode to High Skill Ceilings

areluin-48I miss the days when MMOs created classes that had high skill ceilings. By that I mean classes where your success or failure actually hinges on how well you can play your class. This is why I love my rune-keeper in Lord of the Rings Online; depending on how well I’m playing that day, I can take on four or five things my level at once, or die after a single one-to-one fight. Like in chess, I have to think several moves ahead, about how long I can keep throwing DoTs before I switch to putting bubbles and HoTs on myself before switching back to damage. When it works out, it’s the best feeling on Middle-Earth. When it doesn’t, I have no one to blame but myself, and I’m ok with that. Somehow the knowledge that I couldn’t have possibly beaten an encounter because of my class and level makes the game feel scripted and robs it of some of its fun. Both rune-keepers and wardens are looked down upon by some players as “bad” classes, but I’ve seen people do some amazing things with both. It’s not the class that’s bad, it’s that it’s less forgiving to bad players. Sure, we need both–everyone has to start somewhere–but I love when I find a class that allows me to solo group quests, but doesn’t feel overpowered because I had to work for that win.

The worst case is when the skill required to do well is high, but the game doesn’t reward players for it. For instance, I remember when Star Wars the Old Republic’s Shadow/Assassin class could out-tank any other class if the player knew what they were doing. Their rotation was complex, with a lot of defensive cooldowns to make up for their light armor, but it was totally worth it to learn. Sadly, from what I’ve heard from current players, they’re only a shadow of their former selves (pun totally intended) in that respect. They can still tank, but at the end of the day they don’t make better tanks than the Knight or Vanguard, who have to do only a fraction of the work to accomplish the same thing.

Sadly, it seems like many newer games tend to have lower and lower skill ceilings. Some would say it’s because the genre is being slowly dumbed down and casual-ified, and, while there’s some truth to that, I would argue that it has more to do with balance. It’s much easier to balance classes that have a pretty low skill ceiling, because you’re fairly safe in assuming that everyone is going to be playing at or near that ceiling. Also, your testers don’t have to be experts in every class to get an accurate picture of how it will play in the hands of players, just average. I really like WildStar’s solution to this. In WildStar, classes are fairly simple, but player skill is still a huge part of doing well, because you’re constantly moving and dodging red telegraphs while making sure you’re pointed at whatever you’re currently attacking/healing.

My House In TESO vs. My House In LotRO

I’m really glad ESO has added housing. I always love seeing the things players do when given creative freedom. But seriously, guys, I ran all the way to a public instance in Shadowfen from Ebonheart (because it was the closest wayshrine I’ve been to), and all you give me is the “deed” to a hotel room? (Who sells a deed to a room in an inn anyway?) They weren’t even nice enough to start me out with any crappy starter furniture; I have to go buy it off of a vendor before I could claim it. Oh, and I can put my pets and mounts inside for some reason, so if you’ve ever wanted a horse for a roommate you’re in luck. I suppose I should be grateful that I can run all the way to Shadowfen and unlock housing at level 15 thanks to level scaling, but until I get 40k-50k more gold, and then some more for a reasonable amount of furniture, it looks like my choices are between a tiny hotel room or a slightly larger hotel room. Granted, I’ve been playing LotRO a lot longer than I’ve been playing TESO, but I feel like I should be able to get something larger than a prison cell even at this point.

LotRO, however, has housing that is much more accessible to low-level players. Several of my characters’ crafting professions have several housing decoration recipes–something I have yet to run across in TESO despite my obsessive habit of checking every box and barrel in sight–in the first two or three tiers of crafting alone, and I commonly get animal skin drops that can be taxidermized into trophies for free. A few weeks ago, I would have complained about LotRO’s total lack of position controls, but recently (on the same day as TESO’s housing patch, oddly enough) they added in sliders that allow players to move items on the X, Y, and Z axes, allowing for much more freedom. It feels like a super quick-and-dirty fix to a clunky old system, because that’s precisely what it is, but it’s so much better than what we had before.

I guess the difference between the two is that TESO’s housing is geared toward endgame players and LotRO’s isn’t. Maybe level 50 me will look back at this and laugh at the fact that I’m complaining about shelling out 50,000+ gold for a house. We all know that inflation is unavoidable in MMOs (the gold cap in WoW used to be an unimaginably high 37 gold at launch, which is positively destitute by today’s standards), so it’s probably best to aim high on this sort of thing. But right now it’s frustrating that I technically have access to this cool system, and can see screenshots and videos of all of the fun things people are doing with their housing plots, but can’t really do anything myself. I almost wish it was level capped.

So which system is “better?” The answer is that I like the accessibility of LotRO’s housing, and it’s much better than it was, but TESO’s objectively has more potential. There are more decorations allowed, there’s more freedom of placement, and it’s simply a newer game with better design. I also think some of that potential will be tarnished by a system that’s designed to tempt you to just skip the fundraising stage and just buy a furnished house from the cash shop, but with cash shop house packages ranging from around $20 to well over $100 (!), I think I’ll stick to saving up my gold.

When MMOs Need An Overhaul

MMOs are somewhat unique in that they are, by nature, persistent and ever changing and expanding. Single player games may come out with a few expansions or DLCs, but other than that, the developers generally scrap everything and create a sequel. In MMOs, however, you can’t really scrap anything, you have to constantly add new content if you want to keep players happy and coming back for more. This is one of the things that I love about the genre, but it also creates a problem. Sooner or later, the game gets bogged down in so many things–progression systems, extra gear slots, gear augmentation, etc.–that, at some point, it really starts to overwhelm new and returning players–sometimes even consistent players who don’t spend a lot of time reading forums and wikis and the like–and it really needs and overhaul. Marvel Heroes’ new 2.0 update (“Biggest Update Ever”) got me thinking about this. I had a big post written about the update that I never posted, partly because, to talk about all of the changes, it ended up being a mile long, but also because it ended up sounding more like a review, and there are people out there who can do that a lot better than I can. To summarize, I really like the update as a whole, I can also see where it went wrong in a few places, but most of all, this was a totally necessary change that, aside from a few hiccups, was handled more or less in the best way possible. So, I’ll be using Marvel Heroes as a case study to talk about overhauls in general.

If at all possible, updates should be done a little at a time. Overhaul one system, then, when that’s settled down, overhaul another. Marvel Heroes, for example, reviewed and overhauled one older hero a month for years. This approach is great because it allows the team to focus on one thing at a time, and it keeps panic down in the community. Speaking of community, they often know the state of the gameplay better than its developers do, so involving them as much as possible as early as reasonably possible is ideal. From what I’ve heard, this is something Marvel Heroes didn’t do so great at with 2.0, but hopefully they’ll take feedback into consideration for future updates. Sometimes, as is the case in Marvel Heroes’ most recent update, you really have to overhaul everything at once (you can’t just rework the whole way power work one hero at a time, and while you’re shaking up hero’s powers is the only really good time to redo the rather arcane and convoluted Omega system), and, when that’s the case, it needs to be communicated early and often.

When a massive update needs to happen all at once, the developers need to sit down and figure out what needs changed, what needs streamlined, and what needs removed altogether, and focus on that alone. I like that Marvel Heroes didn’t pair this update with a new content expansion; they just worked on streamlining the game and balancing all of the classes, and that’s pretty much it. Not only does it allow more crucial manpower to go into the overhaul part, but it also disassociates the overhaul from any other added content. For instance, I heard a lot of negativity about WoW Cataclysm, not because the endgame content was bad, but because it streamlined and accelerated the leveling process, removing and changing a lot of content from the beginning of the game that people knew and loved. As a non-WoW player who knows several WoW players, I don’t really know a whole lot about what Cataclysm added; I mainly know about what it took away.

At the end of the day, no matter what you do, someone’s going to hate it. It’s best to just resign yourself to that fact, both as a developer, and as a player. People who are content don’t tend to get on forums and write lengthy posts about how the update is nice, or at least marginally better than what we had before. It’s the people who are upset that their favorite class isn’t as OP as it used to be, or who have some reason why they liked the game better when it was inaccessible to new players, that will stamp their feet and threaten to leave the game forever if something isn’t done about it by next patch.

I know all of this is much easier said than done. I’m actually in the process of developing a single-player RPG with a friend right now, and just balancing that is hard enough, I can’t imagine a game with sixty classes that’s constantly being picked apart by min/maxers. I know video games are made by companies with higher-ups that aren’t always as interested in what’s best for the game so much as what’s best for the bottom line, and sometimes the only way you’re going to get funding approved for a major systems overhaul is if you bundle it with a paid expansion or other major content drop. But overall, I think Marvel Heroes has done a good job managing this update, and I’ve been really enjoying it so far.

GW2: All Classes At 80: A Retrospective

I never thought I’d achieve it in any game (not that it’s really much of an achievement in Guild Wars 2). In the final days of 2016, I finally got the last of the nine classes to 80. Yes, I’ve had the Tomes of Knowledge to get them to 80 for quite a while, but I don’t like to use those without at least the majority of the work normally. I think it’s now safe to say that Guild Wars 2 has had more staying power than any other video game that I’ve played. I’m not quite sure why, but I’m ok with it. Now that I’ve got all nine classes at 80 and messed around at least a little bit with their elite specs, I thought I’d share a bit about what worked and what didn’t.

My first 80 was the engineer. I was initially attracted to the class because I thought I could play it like my STO engineer; build a bunch of turrets to support and deal damage, then finish off anything left with my dual pistols. Unfortunately, as I got closer to endgame, it became apparent that ArenaNet hates turrets, and I swapped them out for grenades and a flamethrower. Spamming giant, long-range AoEs is fun for a while, and the flamethrower is fun visually, if not terribly good damage, but eventually I moved on to other classes. Now I, sadly, almost never play engi. The addition of the hammer with the Scrapper elite spec was interesting, but not enough to hold my interest.

I have a lot of trouble deciding what my favorite class is. For a long time I said my necromancer was my favorite, and he’s still the character I did all of the expansion and living story stuff on first. Necros do lots of damage over time and their survivability is great, even for someone like me who often forgets to use the shroud form. The thief was a very close second for a while, but they tend to have a very simplistic ideal “rotation,” consisting mostly alternating between their autoattack and whatever gets them the most damage in this fight. Thieves are also lacking in the ranged damage department, which proved to be a big problem in Heart of Thorns. Now, however, my favorite class may be the revenant. Maybe it’s just because it’s newer and shinier, added in the Heart of Thorns expansion, but I really like it for its versatility. I play my revenant as a group support build, but they have great survivability, can do a little tanking (at least as much tanking as any class in a game with no tanks can do), and they crank out good DPS with either direct damage or damage over time.

The mesmer is the class I find both the most unique and the most difficult to play. Unfortunately I’ve never felt very rewarded for all of that complexity, so it’s one of my less played classes. They have some nice utilities–stealth, speed boosts, portals, etc.–but that’s never been enough to keep my attention for long. The chronomancer makes some nice additions to its selection of support abilities, but it still wasn’t for me. Also up there in the complexity department is the elementalist, who I initially hated, but eventually grew to love after I played around with the different options long enough and eventually settled on staff, alternating between fire and air. The overload mechanic introduced by the elite spec really adds a lot to the way it plays, in my opinion, giving you a reason to switch elements, but also giving you a reason to stick with that element for a while.

So what did I do to celebrate the accomplishment of getting all of the classes to 80? I promptly bought a new character slot and rolled another thief. I think I have a problem.